Ferguson and American History
by Margaret Kimberley
Good afternoon. I am deeply honored to have been invited to join this conference. I am also very happy that the subject which I’ll be discussing is of such great interest to people all over the world. The police killing of 18 year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014 was a turning point. Sadly it is not because the circumstances of his death were at all unusual.
According to a study conducted by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a black person is the victim of an extra judicial killing every 28 hours at the hands of police, private security or vigilantes in the United States. Michael Brown is just one of over 300 black people who will succumb in the same way before 2014 ends.
What made Brown’s death different was the response from his community. The people in a small town outside of St. Louis reacted with a sustained protest which caught the country’s and the world’s attention. It wasn’t only the resistance which generated attention but the force they were met with by local police. Many people were shocked to see military vehicles, armored personnel carriers, and jeeps on the streets of an American city, but in reality it should not have been surprising at all. The trend of police militarization began nearly 50 years ago during urban rebellions in Newark, Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities.
On December 8, 1969 the Los Angeles police department attacked the headquarters of the local chapter of the Black Panther Party and a shoot out ensued. Ultimately all of the panther party members were acquitted of attempted murder and other charges six months later. The urban riots, the raid on the panther headquarters and the subsequent acquittals hastened the establishment of Special Weapons and Tactics, SWAT teams, which began to proliferate around the country.
But in truth, black Americans have always been under the most surveillance, and are the most controlled group of people in the country. This level of control goes back to enslavement in the earliest days of American settler history and impacts us all two hundred years later. Slavery could not exist as an institution without police state terror and the legacy of that history continues until the 21st century and thus Ferguson.
So while it is true that beginning in 1997 the department of defense enacted Program 1033 which gave surplus military equipment to local police departments, it was never far from the historical imperatives of the American state. Tanks in the streets of Ferguson are also tied to the mass incarceration state. The United States leads the world in the number of persons incarcerated, some 2.3 million people.
With just 5% of the world’s population, our country has the dubious distinction of having 25% of the world’s prisoners. Not only are those numbers astronomically high, but fully half of those incarcerated persons are black. The all too brief black liberation movement ended America’s apartheid but was quickly followed by mass incarceration and the war on drugs, which was used as a pretext for putting more people of color behind bars.
I would also add that our country’s domestic policy closely follows its international policy. Not only does the U.S. lead in incarceration but in military spending, which is greater than that of the rest of the world’s nations combined.
Just this week, the United States senate released a report five years in the making which detailed an official policy of torture during the Bush administration. Among other outrages, the report revealed that the government paid 2 psychologists $81 million to develop methods of literally driving prisoners insane, prisoners in so-called “black” sites and at Guantanamo.
Torture was not just the policy of the CIA. It is also a policy of American law enforcement and led directly to the death of Michael Brown. Last month Brown’s parents and activists from around the country travelled to Geneva, Switzerland to testify before the United Nations Committee Against Torture. The committee concluded that the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons constituted torture, as did police actions which disproportionately inflict brutalization on black people.
These policies that are enforced at home and abroad continue no matter which political party is in control in Washington or who presides in the white house. As bad as Bush’s policy was, his successor Barack Obama asserts the right to actually kill anyone he says is a terrorist. Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen whom the president assassinated with a drone as method of execution. He also killed Awlaki’s teenaged old son.
What does the president’s kill list, a name which his administration coined, have to do with Ferguson? Ever since Michael Brown was killed the United States department of justice has contended that they are hampered in their ability to bring about a federal prosecution of killer policeman Darren Wilson because the legal bar is too difficult to reach. Needless to say we should all be very skeptical of these claims.
When the president decided to kill Awlaki, the bar was suddenly very low, the burden of proof non-existent. Attorney general Eric Holder, the leading law enforcement official in the country, made a bizarre claim regarding Awlaki’s killing. Our constitution guarantees a right to due process of law, but the Obama administration says that isn’t really true, that we have no right to due process if the president so chooses.
This was absolute nonsense, a lie meant to allow the president to get away with extra judicial murder. There is no prior case law to back up this claim, there are no legal scholars who can say where this theory came from. I bring this up because the Obama administration through leaks to newspapers and even in public statements claims that federal prosecution of Wilson is unlikely to take place. But as we saw in the case of Awlaki, they made the bar low because they wanted him dead. The bar is only high if they aren’t interested in meeting it.
The truth is this. The police in the United States are the 21st slave patrol and unless Americans acknowledge that fact, grand juries like the one in Ferguson, Missouri will issue verdicts that allow them to kill at will. This was a very difficult year for anyone concerned about police misconduct. In July a New York City man named Eric Garner died in what a coroner ruled a homicide at the hands of police. His killer was also not indicted. Two weeks ago a 12-year old child with a toy gun was killed by police in Cleveland, Ohio, a state which has laws on the books allowing for open carrying of firearms.
All of these cases have renewed demands for justice and thousands of people have demonstrated across the country on behalf of these individuals and their families. As I mentioned before, there is now an important effort to bring American police brutality before the international community.
A mentally ill black man was killed by what can only be called a firing squad of police in the state of Michigan. As in other cases, the Obama justice department chose not to prosecute anyone, despite the existence of video evidence of murder. Activists took his case before the Inter American Commission on Human Rights. The United States should not be able to point fingers at countries around the world while allowing its own terrible human rights abuses to take place. America must explain itself to the world.
Americans love to think of their country as being “exceptional” and superior to all others. I don’t believe there is another country in the world where a teenager can be shot in the eye and in the head as Michael Brown was, and then have his dead body lie in the street for four hours. It is an undisputed good for the world community to pass judgment on America.
These problems begin and are maintained by those at the very top of American power. President Obama promised transparency and change when he campaigned for his job. Now he is like his republican predecessor, defending the current CIA director who was one of the architects of the international torture project.
The attacks on September 11, 2001 were the pretext for torture, black sites for prisoners and greater militarization of the police. But as I have pointed out, poor black people were always at risk of being treated in heinous ways without having recourse for justice. The next presidential election will take place in less than two years and none of the presumed candidates have said a word about the senate torture report or about police brutality. It seems that we can expect more of the same from Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush or whomever else may be the next president.
Our demands must be simple. We must have federal prosecutions of killer police officers and torture in all its forms must be made explicitly illegal. None of that can happen unless the United States becomes the democratic nation that it claims to be. That will not happen unless ceases to be the de facto ruling principle in America.
“Hands up don’t shoot” should not be words on t-shirts that are quickly forgotten. They can and they must be a rallying cry to make systemic change. Thank you.
Malcolm X Grass Roots